My daughter recently grew an interest in the game of chess, after spying an ornate set at my parents’ house and begging me to teach her to play. Since then we’ve had a number of games. I’m a terrible player, but I know enough to stay ahead of her, and I’ve defeated her every time. Take that, ten-year-old!
In all seriousness, I’m teaching her the same way my father taught me. He’s a great chess player. He never let me or my siblings win, because that was the only way to learn. I eventually gave up, but my older brother was relentless, and finally, after months of playing my dad after dinner or on the weekends, he finally defeated him. I know my dad was proud, and so was my brother, because it was a hard won victory. So I play my daughter the same way, and eventually she’ll beat me, not because I let her, but because her skills will surpass mine. She’ll outwit and outflank me, and good for her when that happens. I love watching her ponder her moves. I can practically see the gears turning.
One time she got discouraged though, and I told her I understood, but then I told her, “You will lose one hundred games of chess before you get good. It takes practice.” And she seemed to understand, and still asks me to play after dinner, the same way my brother and I would challenge my dad.
Later, when I thought about what I’d told her, I was reminded of another maxim I’d learned after I’d been working on my novels for a few years: “You will write one hundred pages of crap before you write your first page of gold.” I’d written much of my first novel by then, but going back and editing, there were only one or two pages that I was really proud of. The rest needed a lot of work, and I had to put it on a shelf for a few years before I eventually returned to it.
Nearly twenty-five years in, I’m still learning, and that’s part of the fun. To look at our own work, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and ask ourselves, “How can I make this better?” —that’s part of our adventure as writers. Committing our ideas to paper is great, but another facet of that gem is polishing those ideas, refining them, distilling, reducing them, until all we’re left with is the bare minimum of words that tells the most brilliant of our ideas – that’s why we write.
But we’ve got to be willing to run that gauntlet, too, where we face the fact that a lot of what we put in our first drafts—well, if not crap, we should at least admit that it needs a lot of work. And we are compelled to put in that work, because when we do, when we persevere through those one hundred pages of crap and reach our first page of gold, that gives us the hope and the encouragement to keep writing, and sooner or later we hammer out those gold pages more frequently, and build something great. I look forward to my daughter’s first chess victory, with the joy and anticipation I’ve felt at all of her past hard-earned successes. I’ve known those joys, and I wish her (and you) to know them as well.